We all know that it is conscientious and neighborly to clear sidewalks running through your property or in front of your business after a significant snowfall, but there are other important reasons to keep our sidewalks snow and ice-free. 1) Accumulated snow and ice is dangerous; 2) snow blocked sidewalks can results in disabled and elderly residents being temporarily homebound; and 3) it is a legal requirement.
A Transportation Necessity
Many upstate cities are precariously situated with high poverty and limited public transportation resources. This means that many individuals rely on the network of sidewalks to get around. In Monroe County, for instance, U.S. Census data reveals almost 12,000 people walk to work and another 13,000 walk to and from bus stops to take public transportation to work. When snow and ice pile up on the sidewalks many disabled, wheelchair bound, or elderly residents are unable to leave their homes. Some are left reliant on family, neighbors, or community services for necessities like groceries and prescriptions. This strains community resources and familial networks at an already stressful time of year.
Wintry weather can be treacherous, especially for people whose primary mode of transportation is not an automobile. Slipping on ice-covered sidewalks is a major public safety issue. A Buffalo study of emergency room visits concluded 27 percent of pedestrian injuries occurred on icy surfaces. To avoid this danger, or more often to avoid snow in their shoes, many who venture out will be compelled to walk or wheel through the streets alongside traffic. Last winter a woman died after being hit by a car in downtown Syracuse. The state of the adjacent pedestrian thoroughfare led to suspicions she was in the road because the sidewalks were impassable. Likewise, the family of a 62 year old Rochester woman killed in a hit and run last March maintains she was walking in the street because the sidewalks were not clear. We can all contribute to reducing the prevalence of accidents by taking the initiative to maintain our walks.
There are two sources of law that require sidewalks be kept clear of snow and ice. Firstly, many municipalities have local laws which require sidewalks be maintained, this includes the clearing of snow and ice. The second, source are federal anti-discrimination statutes like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which require public accommodations be accessible to people with disabilities.
A typical provision from the City of Saratoga Springs’s Town Code requires:
The owner, occupant or person in charge of an improved or unimproved lot adjoining a City street shall remove the snow from the sidewalks in front of such lot within 12 hours after each snowstorm and shall keep the sidewalks clear of snow and ice and, when slippery, keep the same safe by sanding.
Rochester City Code § 104-11(c) provides “[t]he owner of a building or lot must keep the sidewalks adjoining such building or lot free and clear from snow and ice and must not suffer or permit snow or ice to collect or remain on such sidewalk later than 9:00 a.m. if such snow shall have fallen or collected after 8:00 p.m. of the previous evening or later than 8:00 p.m. if such snow shall have fallen and collected after 9:00 a.m.” In addition to these affirmative laws, some municipalities have negative laws to prevent people from contributing to the problem. In 2015, the Syracuse passed a law making it illegal for plow operators to pile snow on a sidewalk. Violators can be fined $150 and the property owner can be fined $100.
Title II of the ADA requires public accommodations to be accessible to people with disabilities. One fifth of families have at least one member with a mobility impairment. Sidewalk impediments may be a bother to the rest of us, but just a few inches of snow or ice can be an insurmountable barrier for someone walking with a cane or using an electric scooter. Scholars have argued the ADA therefore requires sidewalks be cleared of accumulating snow and ice. The U.S. Department of Transportation agrees with this finding. A federal guide to ADA compliance suggests that “only isolated or temporary interruptions” to accessibility are permissible. It does not define the timeframe, but clearly requires “reasonable snow removal efforts.” Another federal anti-discrimination statute, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires sidewalks funded with federal money to be cleared.
Local municipalities have taken different approaches to attempt to keep their sidewalks clear during the long winter season. Rochester has received praise for its program, which employs a fleet of contractors to clear sidewalks anytime it snows more than four inches. It funds the program through a property tax levy of about $35 per year to an average homeowner. Syracuse is in the first year of a similar albeit less ambitious program. Some municipalizes leave the onus entirely on property owners.
Municipalities’ efforts to make sure all their sidewalks are indeed laudable, but public finances remain tight. The best way to keep our communities safe, accessible, and inviting is for individuals and businesses that own property to fulfill our obligations as law-abiding citizens and as good neighbors to keep our sidewalks clear.